Date: 22 August 2022 Author: Finn-Ole Albers
The military capabilities among Antarctic claimant states
This research paper thinks about a potential military rivalry for territories in Antarctica. It focuses on the seven states, that have yet asserted territorial claims in Antarctica: Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, France and the United Kingdom. The intention is to give a provisional, superficial review about the overall numbers of weapon systems since 2015 in connection with their range and their geographic proximity to Antarctica. Currently, the UK, France and Australia appear to be the most militarily capable states among the seven claimant states.
1.) Status quo in Antarctica
The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, in its preamble, declares Antarctica to be an area which is to be used for all time solely for peaceful and scientific purposes, in the “interest of all mankind”.
Under Article 4 Paragraph 1a the Antarctic Treaty rules that states with asserted territorial claims before the year 1959 are not to waive their claims. The territorial claims are “frozen”. During the validity of the treaty, no new claims may be asserted (Art. 4 para. 2). The seven states that asserted territorial claims before 1959 are Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Norway.
Currently, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty of 1991 restricts the exploitation of natural resources. Strict environmental protection principles apply (Art. 3) and the exploitation of mineral resources is reserved for scientific purposes (Art. 7).
In addition, Article 1 para. 1 Antarctic Treaty prohibits all military maneuvers.
Together with the 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, the so-called Antarctic Treaty System comprises three treaties. According to Article 6 of the Antarctic Treaty, its scope extends to all areas and waters south of the 60th parallel south latitude.
2.) Potential geopolitical rivalry
According to the structural realism theory of Kenneth Waltz the international system is characterized is by anarchy. The primary goal of states is to ensure their survival (p. 91). The anarchic system forces states to constantly strive for an expansion of their economic and military power. Otherwise, they would risk other states increasing their power resources and then using them against them.
Due to the melting of the polar ice caps and technological progress, it can be assumed that the natural resources of Antarctica will be steadily easier to exploit in the future:
Based on the geological knowledge and the location of mineral resources in South America, South Africa and Australia it is assumed that there are oil reserves in the Ross Sea, the Weddel Sea and other locations. There have been coal discoveries in the Transantarctic mountains. Based on explorations in the Andean mountains and deposits in South Africa it is assumed that there are several mineral resource deposits such as copper beneath the Antarctic Peninsula and gold in in the Norwegian-claimed Queen Maud Land.
While the exploitation of coal and oil may be not desirable in the future due to global agreements on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, Antarctica may be a provider for some very basic but contested resources, which is water and land. Due to shortages of potable water, the Antarctic ice could serve as a source for water supplies. In times of overpopulation Antarctica may be an interesting location for the settlement of people.
Besides, the geographical location of Antarctica is strategically favorable positioned at the connections between the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
From a theoretical-realistic point of view, Antarctica therefore offers a great potential for states to increase their future economic and military power. Conversely, there is a danger of losing power – and thus security – due to a lack of access to Antarctica.
Based on Waltz’s theoretical premises, this work is based on the scenario that in the near or distant future there will be a global race for military control over Antarctica’s territories and waters.
The Antarctic treaty system would become obsolete. The seven states with territorial claims would try to exercise their “frozen” claims under Article 4 Antarctic Treaty.
From the point of view of the seven states, there are two compelling reasons for military protection: First, there are overlapping claims: The United Kingdom, Chile and Argentina make overlapping claims to the Antarctic Peninsula.Therefore, the need for the states to militarily secure their claimed territories against the access of other states would increase.
Second, this need would increase even further if, after the failure of the Antarctic Treaty, other states – such as China, Russia or the USA – would assert territorial claims. Since only a relatively small area in the west of Antarctica is currently not claimed by any state, the number of overlapping territorial claims is likely to continue to rise.
It is therefore of great interest to consider the trends of military capabilities of the current seven claimant states.
3.) Assessment of military capabilities
Since Antarctica can only be reached by ship or aircraft from any continent, it is relevant to capture the capabilities of the navy and air force.
Besides, logistical support capabilities are relevant as well as transport aircraft and tankships: The transport aircraft can land troops on airstrips or by parachute. Tankers are necessary for the fuel supply of operating ships when they are in action far away from their home ports.
The last point ‘Sufficient range’ is intended to examine whether a country’s systems will actually be able to reach their claimed Antarctic area in the year of 2022. The aim is to measure the range of ships and aircraft from their most southern military base to the nearest location on the claimed Antarctic coastline.
1) Amphibious landing ships
5) Fighter aircraft and helicopters
6) Aircraft carrier
7) Transport aircraft
9) Sufficient range
The information collection is to be carried out via a survey of the Global Firepower Index and additional open source information. The selected period will cover the years from 2015 to 2022. Seven years seems long enough to observe trends in military capabilities.
4.) Military capabilities
In the following, the collected data are presented broken down by weapon system and broken down into the individual countries.
In the tabular display, rows marked in green represent information that have been collected from the Global Firepower Index (points 2-7).
Sources for further information (points 1 and 8) are given under the individual tables. Later on, the military capabilities of each country, in particular the sufficient range of weapon systems will be discussed.
4.1) Remarks on validity and reliability
The Global Firepower Index may have some limitations in validity and reliability. For the years 2015 and 2016 the editors disclaim that some values might be estimated when there is no official source available. Besides, it is to note that the numbers itself is based on other open source databases like wikipedia.org, wdmmw.org or the CIA World Factbook, media information and user’s contributions.
However, over the years the appearance of the website became more professional and structured and the disclaimers on ‘estimated values’ disappeared. So their information gathering might have become more accurate over the years.
There is a remarkable decline in the numbers of aircraft from 2015 to 2022, especially regarding France, the UK, Australia and Chile. One explanation might be a a different way of measuring the number of aircrafts. On the other hand, as the Business Insider noted for the UK’s capabilities in 2015, that there was a trend to “to remodel the UK’s armed forces away from the large-scale standing armies of old toward more elite tactical units befitting the military demands of the 21st Century”.
When surveying ships, it is important to be aware of duplications. The helicopter carriers of Australia and France both also serve as amphibious landing ships. In principle, it should be noted that some additional information could not be found differently than on Wikipedia.
Regarding the point of sufficient range (9), the distance of the southernmost military base to the claimed Antarctic coast section forth and back this measured.
If the range of a weapon system is larger than this total distance (the journey back and forth), then the range of a weapon system will be indicated as “yes”. This is also done if just one system of many of the same (for example just one class of destroyers) could reach Antarctica.
Otherwise, “no” is indicated. “No” is also indicated for all non-possessed weapon systems. In the table the range is indicated as “combined” if Antarctica can be reached by refueling by means of a tanker. In the final chart, “combined” is counted as “yes”.
With regard to the significance of the numbers as a whole, it should be noted critically that the number of weapon systems cannot make a definitive statement as to whether one country is superior to the other. Tactics, communication, motivation of the soldiers, the firepower and quality of the systems would also have to be taken into account for a definite rating of military capabilities.
For example, the UK’s or France’s decline of the numbers of aircraft does not automatically mean that their military power in the skies is on decline. If new aircraft are more capable and modern, they might have the value of several old aircraft.
The aim of this paper is to give a provisional, superficial review of the overall numbers of weapon systems in connection with their range and the geographic proximity to Antarctica.
5.) Military capabilities by country
|Amphibious landing ships||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||yes|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||no|
|Amphibious landing ships||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||yes|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||no|
|Amphibious landing ships||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||yes|
|Fighter aircraft/helicopters||178||178||178||178||178||110||116||131||Combined (helicopter carrier)|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||0||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||yes|
|Amphibious landing ships||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||yes|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||0||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||no|
|Amphibious landing ships||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||yes|
|Fighter aircraft/helicopters||586||616||629||652||602||331||365||335||combined (aircraft carrier)|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||4||4||4||4||4||4||4||4||yes|
|Amphibious landing ships||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||yes|
|Fighter aircraft/helicopters||314||308||295||295||328||197||172||166||yes and combined (aircraft carrier)|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||1||1||2||2||1||2||2||2||combined (tankers)|
|Amphibious landing ships||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||no|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||no|
|United Kingdom||France||Australia||Chile||Argentina||New Zealand||Norway|
|Amphibious landing ships||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||no|
|Aircraft Carrier/ Helicopter Carrier||yes||yes||yes||no||no||no||no|
|Number (max. 8)||8||7||7||5||5||3||1|
5.2) Further discussion
In General, the overview shows that the states with the greatest availability of all collected weapons systems are the UK, France and Australia.
In terms of the number of systems, France and Great Britain are in the top two places by a clear margin in almost every survey. In terms of the number of aircraft and helicopter carriers, however, Australia with its two helicopter carriers comes close to the UK.
The three states also have the most weapon systems with which they can reach their claimed coastal sections. The UK has the most systems (8 out of 8).
In the following, the individual states will be discussed in more detail and the measurement of the sufficient range will be explained.
Argentina’s southernmost naval base is located in Ushuaia. The sea route there and back to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula is about 2100 kilometers.
From the southernmost air base in Río Gallegos, the air route there and back is about 2700 kilometers.
The range of the landing ships is 7400 kilometers, that of the destroyer 8300. Most of the fighter planes consist of A-4 Fightinghawks and have a range of 3200 kilometers. In the case of transport aircraft, the range of the C-130 Hercules with medium load is 4000 kilometers.
Argentina’s tanker has a range of 17000 kilometers.
Argentina does not have frigates or aircraft carriers. In addition, it should be noted that in 2019 the Navy gave its last of three submarines in repair and has not had any since then.
Therefore, Argentina can reach its coastline on the Antarctic Peninsula with a total of 5 out of 8 systems. Its number of systems is stable overall, but the submarine fleet has been lost.
From Chile’s main naval base in Valparaíso to the claimed northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the sea route there and back is 7800 kilometers. As the navy maintains a search and rescue center in Punta Arenas, a city far south, it might be possible that its harbor might also serve at least as a part-time base for Chilean warships.
From the Punta Arenas airbase, the air route is a total of 1250 kilometers.
The range of the landing ships is 8300 and 20300 kilometers. The submarines have a range of 740 kilometers when sailing submerged and 20000 kilometers when sailing surfaced and would reach their destination. The frigates have ranges of 8300 to 8700 kilometers.
The F-16 Falcon fighter jets can fly 3200 kilometers, the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft 4000 kilometers (see above). The range of the tankers cannot be determined.
Except for a reduction in frigates from 10 to 8, Chile’s military capabilities are stable on paper. It reaches its Antarctic territories with 5 out of 8 systems.
Australia’s Navy has its main bases near Sydney (Fleet Base East) and Perth (Fleet Base West). From both cities, the sea route to the claimed coast in the southeast of Antarctica is a total of 7800 or 7600 kilometers. The southernmost air base is RAAF Base Williams near Melbourne, of which the airway is about 6400 kilometers.
The landing ships, which also act as helicopter carriers, have a range of 15500 or 17130 kilometers at slow speeds. Australia’s Collins-class submarines have a range of 890 kilometers when sailing submerged and 21300 kilometers when sailing surfaced and by this way they would make it to Antarctica.
The range of the frigates is 11100, that of the destroyers 8300 kilometers. The F-35 A fighter jet has a range of 2200 kilometers and would not reach Antarctica. Based on the helicopter carriers, however, the Seahawk helicopter, equipped with the air-to-surface Hellfire-missile, would get to their destination.
The range of the C-130 Hercules (4000 km) and C-17 A Globemaster (5100 km) transport aircraft is too short for Antarctic missions.
However, the tankers would reach their destination with 11000 kilometers.
Australia reaches its claimed territories with 7 out of 8 systems. Noteworthy is the procurement of the two helicopter carriers in 2016, which should significantly increase the country’s clout. The naval capabilities will even increase further, once Australia under the AUKUS framework will have acquired new nuclear submarines with an unlimited range.
New Zealand’s frigates are stationed in Taraunga and Napier, of which it is a total of 8200 and 7400 kilometers respectively to the southeastern tip of the Ross Dependency. Its southernmost airport as a starting point for air operations is Ryans Creek, with an airway totaling 5600 kilometers to the Antarctica.
New Zealand’s two frigates would be able to cover the required distance with a range of 11110 kilometers, so does its Tanker with a range of 11900 kilometers and its landing ship HMNZS Canterbury with a range of 11100 kilometers. Its helicopters would not reach Antarctica at a 500 kilometers range, just like the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. Due to the lack of further systems, New Zealand only has just three systems with a sufficiently large radius of action.
From France’s air and naval base in Noumea, the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, the distance to the claimed Adélie Land is a total of 10600 kilometers.
The French amphibious landing ships, which are also counted as helicopter carriers, have a range of 19800 kilometers. The range of the submarines is unlimited due to their nuclear propulsion. The frigates and destroyers have ranges of 6480 to 17000 kilometers. 
Among the fighter jets, the Dassault Rafale, which can also take off from aircraft carriers, has a range of 3700 kilometers. The aircraft carriers have a nuclear-powered infinite range.
France’s military capabilities appear constantly high. It can reach its claimed areas with 7 out of 8 systems.
With the Falkland Islands the UK has an overseas territory with a favourable geographical proximity to its claimed “British Antarctic Territory”. From the naval base Mare Habour on the sea route to the northern tip of the claimed Antarctic Peninsula is about 2600 kilometers, which also corresponds to the air distance from the adjacent air base Mount Pleasant.
Its five Albion and Bay class amphibious landing ships have a range of 14800 kilometers. Its submarines are nuclear-powered. 
The destroyers get 13000 kilometers far, the frigates up to 14400 kilometers. The two aircraft carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class are diesel-powered and have a range of 18500 kilometers. Whether the base on the Falkland Islands is sufficient as a base of operations for aircraft carriers is questionable, but in case of doubt, the sea route from the home base Portsmouth could also be mastered with the help of tankers, which have ranges of 18500 kilometers.  
The land-based Eurofighter Typhoon gets 2800 kilometers far and the carrier-based F-35 B 1600 kilometers.
The most widely used transport aircraft Airbus A 400 M and C-130 Hercules both travel about 4000 kilometers and thus reach the claimed Antarctic Peninsula.
The UK is thus the only Antarctic claimant state with all the collected systems able to reach the claimed territories.
From the Haakkonsvern naval base in Bergen, the sea route to the Norwegian-claimed Queen Maud Land is about 30,000 kilometers back and forth.
The frigates of the Fridtjof Nansen class cannot reach it themselves with a range of 8300 km, but possibly by multi times refueling by Norway’s tankship HNOMS Maud, which has a range of 18500 kilometers.
With its Ula-class submarines, Norway cannot reach Antarctica, as they only travel 9260 kilometers surfaced. Norway’s F-35 A fighter jets with a range of 2200 kilometers do not reach the Antarctic territories, nor do its C-130 transport aircraft.
This would allow Norway to defend its Antarctic territories only with a single weapon system.
Range of ammunition
A further question, regarding the range of the weapon systems, is the range of their ammunition. Maybe a destroyer or a fighter aircraft itself might not reach the Antarctic coastline but its missiles do. After a survey of each country’s missiles in service this criteria does not have an impact on the point of sufficient range:
Argentina uses Exocet missiles with a 40 kilometers range for its destroyers and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles with a 35 kilometers range for its A-4 Fightinghawk aircraft.
Chile’s submarines are equipped with 50 kilometers ranging Exocet missiles, the frigates carry 124 kilometers ranging Harpoon anti-ship missiles and RIM-66 anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles with a range of 74 to 167 kilometers. Its airforce’s F-16 fighters carry AIM-9 Sidewinders as well as more modern air-to-air AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles with a range of 55 to 160 kilometers. In addition, there are Harpoon anti-ship missiles ranging 220 kilometers.
Australia uses Sidewinder and Harpoon missiles for its navy and airforce as well.
In addition the F-35 fighters will use the variants of the JASSM cruise missile in the future. Current orders of the AGM-158 B and C variant will range up to 1000 kilometers and a future AGM-158 D variant, currently in production just for the US airforce, will even range 1800 to 1900 kilometers (depending on source).
This would still be to short to reach Antarctica, as the distance between RAAF Base Williams and Antarctica is 3200 kilometers and a combined use of F-35 A (1100 kilometers radius) and JASMM (1900 kilometers) would just range 3000 kilometers in total. However, if one day the D variant might come into service it would increase Australian control in the seas off its Antarctic coast section.
New Zealand’s rockets have smaller ranges. Its sea-launched surface-to-air missiles (Sea Ceptor) and the helicopter-based anti-ship missiles have ranges of 25 to 34 kilometers.
The UK’s frigates carry Harpoons, the destroyers the Sea Viper system with a range of up to 120 kilometers. On its submarines there are Tomahawk IV Cruise Missiles with a range of 1600 kilometers. The F-35 fighters can carry a Joint Strike Missile, flying up to 370 kilometers to hit targets on land and sea.
Regarding France, its non-strategic nuclear attack submarines and the frigates are using Exocet missiles, the long-range missile for the Rafale-fighters is the Strom Shadow/ Scalp air-to-surface missile with a range of 560 kilometers. The FREMM multi-mission frigates can carry a naval cruise missile with a range of 1000 kilometers.
However, these data doesn’t affect the outcome of the results on the question of sufficient range. Only in the case of Norway, the range of the frigate’s Naval Strike Missile of 185 kilometers could be critical to reach Antarctica, as the frigates would rely on refueling by its tankship.
At least on paper, Britain, France and Australia possess the best capabilities to defend their claimed territories in the event of war. Argentina is on a downward trajectory due to its lost submarine fleet.
From a theoretical-realistic point of view, it would be necessary for New Zealand and Norway to either strive to strengthen military capabilities (balancing) or to strive for close cooperation with these three most powerful Antarctic claimant states (bandwagoning). This was also very important for other European countries, who don’t have any territorial claims in Antarctica right now.
Regarding the political stability of the claimant state’s close-by territories, it should be noted that there are differences between the British and French Overseas territories.
New Caledonia as a key military base for France in the Indo-Pacific and for potential warfare in Antarctica has a strong independence movement. The native population, the Kanaks, make up 39 percent of the New Caledonian population. Before reconciliation agreements in 1988 (Matingnon Accord) and 1998 (Noumea Accord), 80 people died in clashes between French forces and Kanak separatists. In 2018, 2020 and in December 2021 three referenda on the question on independence were hold, with results of 56.7 in 2018, 53.3 in 2020 and 96 percent against independence. The vote of 2021 was however boycotted by large parts of the independence movement, which does not recognize the 2021 referendum. 
The British Falkland Islands however don’t have a native population and are by the vast majority inhabited by the descendants of British settlers. In a 2013 referendum the Falklanders voted to remain in the United Kingdom by 1513 against three votes.
While the UK’s position on its close-by overseas territory seems stable, France’s presence on New Caledonia remains more contested.
However, from its airbases and naval facilities on La Réunion it would be an approximate distance of 152000 kilometres in total for ships back and forth to the Adélie Land. This is a bit longer than the 10600 kilometres from New Caledonia but it would still be in the radius of seven out of eight systems. In addition, the yet not permanently inhabited Kerguélen Islands in the southern Indian ocean might serve as a future military base for Antarctic missions, as they are even closer to the Antarctic shores. However, it would make no difference for the transport plane who would still not reach the Adélie Land.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the question what other great powers like the United States, China or Russia might do in the future. For further research, their military capabilities should be included into the assessment as well. In addition, the actions of other regional powers like South Africa, India or Brazil should be taken into consideration in case of a breakup of the Antarctic Treaty System. In case of a military build up, South Africa has a favourable geographic location with just 38000 kilometres from the south coast to the Antarctic, or just 2300 kilometres from Marion Island in the southern Indian Ocean, if it wanted to build a military base there.
In August 2021 an Al-Jazeera report raised attention on India’s construction of an airstrip and naval facilities at Agalega Island, which is part of Mauritius. Although the governments of India and Mauritius denied it was meant to be an Indian military base, in case of a military use it would bring India’s navy closer to the Antarctic. In this regard, China’s attempts to strengthen ties with Pacific Islands states and its recent agreement with the Solomon Islands on security cooperation should be closely monitored.
Finn-Ole Albers is an undergraduate student of Politics, Administration and International Relations at Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, Germany. Currently he is doing his internship at Warsaw institute, researching on security and geopolitical issues regarding Poland’s defence policy, Russia’s influence in the Middle East and the military balance in the Antarctic region.
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